What are these special characters (symbols) meant for? Do they have well-defined purposes, and is there any rhyme or reason to how they came to appear in the words that use them?

I mean :

à â ä æ ç è é ê ë î ï ô œ ù û ü Œ, etc.

Do they have a fixed pronunciation, or does it vary?

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    Is there anything particular at all you don't understand about them? As it stands, "explain everything about French diacritics" is grossly too broad.
    – Kareen
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 5:39
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    @Sridhar here is the link : How to ask a good question. For instance, your questions in made of 4 questions. Among them, "How to pronounce" may be easily answered by yourself if you find words using them (as Anupama started doing), (for instance here.
    – Random
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 7:35
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    Voted to close for the same reason as everyone else, but retracted it when I saw BBBreiz's fascinating answer. Sources would be good, but even so-- can't bring myself to close a question that produced one of the most interesting answers I've seen on FL&U. Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 16:49
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    @Aerovistae A great answer doesn't make for a great question. They are two different posts and can be acted on differently as appropriate for each, as intended.
    – Kareen
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 19:40
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    Being the one who answered, i feel a bit accused, so I have to defend myself: It seems to me that the purpose of this site is to help the spreading of knowledge, am I right? Secondly, when you see someone searching for a knowledge you have, the natural empathy between humans drives you to help. Thirdly, when the knowledge you have on a subject is null, the questions you have to set are necessarily broad: For example, if you want to discover the game of chess, you won't ask a question about the Schengen variante of the Sicilian defense, but rather "what is the aim of the game of chess"
    – BBBreiz
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 9:31

2 Answers 2


Your question is very interesting, but quite complex too. First, it is interesting to notice that accents, in French, didn't exist until the end of the 16th century. The reason why they have been invented is probably partly to lighten the work of typographs, since printing has been invented towards the end of the 15th century, and partly to change the writing of words of whose some consonants had ceased to be pronounced.

So, firstly, the "^" or "accent circonflexe", has been invented to replace the letter "s" in words where that "s" had ceased to be pronounced. This is why you often find in English the old French form, because, in the past centuries, the English language constantly used to import French words, just like the French language does today with English words. So "bastard" became "bâtard", "forest" became "forêt","isle" became "île","apostre" became "apôtre", "coust" became "coût" and so on, but you can still find the original French form in English (except, here, for "apostre" where the English have changed the "r" for an "l", becoming "apostle", and "coust" where they have suppressed the "u" to make it "cost").

The "ô" is a special case, because not only the accent has been added to replace the "s", but also the pronunciation of the "ô" is forced : it must be a "close o" (like in the word "board") instead of an "open o" (like in "hot"), meanwhile the other vowels with accent have no special pronunciation, though the "â" used to be pronounced a bit differently from the "a" (somewhere between "a" and "o"), but that slight distinction has progressively disappeared since the 1970's. Still, you can sometimes hear the former pronunciation of "â" in many old French films.

Moreover, the "^" has been used in a second case: the need to distinguish two homonyms, like "du" (contraction of "de le") and "dû" (past participle of the verb "devoir"; its feminine form is "due" without "^"), or like "mit" (simple past of the verb "mettre") and "mît" (subjunctive past of the verb "mettre").

The letter "é" has been invented to transcript the corresponding special pronunciation of "e". In the middle-age, the sound "é" at the end of a word was given by adding a consonant, mainly "d" (and sometimes "f"), then that "ed" has been replaced by "é", so "bled" became "blé". And still, one word has kept its ancient form: "pied" is still written "pied" and you can't write it "pié". On the other hand, the ancient form "clef" can still be used as well as the modern one, "clé" (key).

The "à" has been invented to distinguish homonyms like "la" (article) and "là"(meaning "there") or "à" (meaning "to") and "a" (third person conjugation of "avoir" (to have).

The "tréma" (symbol "¨") has been invented for phonetic reasons: usually, for example, "gue" must be pronounced "g"-"euh" or "g"-"é". But in the adjective "aiguë", you have to pronounce the "u", so you set a trema on the "e" to express that need of pronunciation. It is allowed since the 90's reform to put the trema on the "u".

The French for non-specialists has ligatures "æ" and "œ" in only a dozen words or so, but some of these words are often used. "æ" sound exactly as if it was replaced by the vowel "é", and "œu" and "œ" as if they were replaced by the vowel "eu": "œuf" (egg), "œuvre" (work(s) of art), "ex æquo", "curriculum vitæ", "et cætera" (and so on), "cœur" and "chœur" (heart and choir; their pronunciation is similar, /kœʁ/), "sœur" (sister), "œil" (eye).

The "cédille" only appears in "ç" which in that case must be pronounced /s/, instead of /k/.

Capitalization should keep all diacritics and ligatures, even in abbreviations like "É.-U." (U.S.A.).

Well there's still a lot to say, but I can give you that as a beginning...

  • Very interesting answer, do you have any source, or is it something you just know ? ( You may also correct some typos ;) )
    – Random
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 8:17
  • @BBBreiz : Felt happy to see this post, even though with the lot of Down votes and misunderstanding. Thanks for valuable answer. Please also cite some sources which will be helpful to read the rest. Again a wonderful answer. Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 8:20
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    You should elaborate! This is one of the coolest answers ever. Where did the cédille come from? And what about è? And what about œ, where did that come from? Also, I have never ever seen cœur, sœur œil . . . are those normally written coeur, soeur, and oeil for lack of having that symbol readily available, or have I had a blind spot for years? Edit: My god, I've had a blind spot for years. Literally just been reading them as oe. Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 16:52
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    Also, source supporting BBBreiz! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_the_circumflex_in_French Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 16:58
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    You state both "œ" and "œu" are to be pronounced like "eu". This is only true for the latter. "œ" is expected and documented to be pronounced like "é" if not followed by "i". Here are some of these words cœlacanthe, fœtus, œcuménique, Œdipe, œnologue, œsophage, œstrogène, phœnix. For some reason the trend is indeed to shift from "é" to "eu" for some of them, especially those staring with an "œ". I have to admit I say more "Eudipe" than "Édipe" to be understood but I say "é" for the rest of them.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 0:21

You are referring to the diacritics (commonly called accents) and ligatures in French.

The accent aigu (soufflé), accent grave (très bien), circonflexe (fête), cédille (ça va) and tréma (Noël) are diacritics, used to change the way the letters they are used on are pronounced.

œ (chef-d'œuvre) and æ (used for Latin or Greek words) are ligatures. The "why" of ligatures is rather complicated and not in the scope of this answer.

Read more here

  • These are elements of the orthography of the language. You can start with the linked Wikipedia article.
    – Anupama G
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 5:18
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    Contrary to a widespread belief, œ and oe are as different as w and vv, not just stylistic.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 7:52
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    Your œ looks really squished Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 8:01
  • @jlliagre: Je ne le connaissais pas. Merci. Je dois rechercher un peu plus sur cela.
    – Anupama G
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 4:46
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    Only some diacritics are called "accents". A cedilla is never called an "accent" but is still a diacritic.
    – N.I.
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 13:35

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